NBC’s EPL start overshadowed by Roku and Amazon’s delay tactics

Premier League matches may not be available on millions of Amazon Fire TV and Roku devices for the beginning of this season, as NBC’s Peacock streaming service remains unavailable on America’s two most popular digital media players. Why? As Hal Holbrook’s Deep Throat told Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, “follow the money.”

For the 2020/21 season, NBC’s Premier League Pass has gone the way of sponsorless shirts. Instead, 175 matches will exclusively stream on Peacock. If you’re a Comcast Xfinity customer, good news. It’s free. But for everyone else — even if you already pay for cable, satellite, or a streaming TV service like Fubo or Sling to get NBCSN — you’ll have to pay $4.99/month for Peacock with ads or $9.99/month for the ad-free version. Much more information is available in World Soccer Talk’s comprehensive Peacock guide.

Comcast, America’s largest residential cable and Internet provider, is offering Peacock free to its approximately 32 million subscribers this season. Comcast can do this because it owns NBC and Peacock. Even if you don’t have Comcast, you can watch Peacock for $4.99/month.

Amazon Fire and Roku have 40 million and 32 million users respectively. Adding more streaming options such as Peacock would only strengthen Amazon and Roku’s positions as the leading purveyors of digital media players. Their goal is to have a one-stop shop device that lets TV viewers flick through streaming services like ESPN+, Netflix, Hulu, or beIN Sports as easily as if they were changing channels.

However, Roku’s business model has changed. When they first launched, they were a hardware company, selling their streaming devices and positioning themselves as a way for cord cutters to watch whatever they wanted when they wanted. Recently, Roku has switched gears to focus more on selling advertising, and acting as a gatekeeper by doing deals with media companies to take a big cut of that ad revenue.

At the same time, Amazon has positioned their Amazon Fire TV as a must-have streaming device that is in the home of many Americans. So far, so good except that when consumers sign up for a paid Peacock subscription via Amazon Fire TV, Amazon wants to put a hefty slice of that revenue in their pocket.

With both Roku and Amazon deciding to stall the addition of the Peacock app to their streaming devices, this stalemate highlights the perils of a market that allows content creators and owners to also be content distributors.

Comcast’s ability to distribute its own content while shutting out rivals from its platform isn’t likely to be challenged anytime soon. Soccer fans have seen this antitrust issue play out poorly before. In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission supported Comcast’s decision to not carry beIN SPORTS. Comcast owns NBCSN, the Premier League’s primary home, so it has little incentive to carry a channel like beIN that offers LaLiga and Ligue 1 matches that often go head-to-head with the Prem. Likewise, Comcast’s Xfinity Flex streaming device doesn’t offer ESPN+, the home of MLS, the Bundesliga and Serie A.

Further bolstering Comcast’s position is the recent repeal of the Paramount Decrees. Hollywood’s major movie studios have been barred from owning movie theaters since 1948’s landmark Supreme Court case, United States v Paramount Pictures, Inc. But just this past August, a federal district court removed those restrictions. Jeff Spross, writing in The Week, argued that, “[s]treaming technology has helped bring back the pre-Paramount decree world of concentration and top-down vertical integration… a handful of six or seven massive competing companies, each with their own siloed production-to-streaming pipeline, is hardly ideal.”

Vertical integration isn’t the only barrier to a deal. In one sense, Amazon Fire TV and Roku are simply intermediary distributors. Without the content from streaming services like Peacock, there’d be no demand for their devices. But, as digital gatekeepers, they’re asking for a heavy toll. Variety’s Todd Spangler reports that Roku wants 30% of advertising inventory on top of its 20% cut of subscription fees.  A Roku rep told Vulture’s Josef Adalian that, “[u]nfortunately, Comcast is trying to launch a primarily ad-supported business while refusing to share in the ad model with platform partners.”

And advertising on Amazon is a big deal. As James Hercher said in AdExchanger, “Amazon’s ability to power attribution and new measurement coveted by advertisers as well as the type of inventory it’s availing give it sharp differentiation.”

So on the one hand, Comcast/NBC would want subscribers to access Peacock directly. That way, Comcast/NBC keeps all the advertising money, subscription money, and valuable subscriber data for itself. On the other hand, Comcast/NBC would want its streaming content to be easily available to as many people as possible, which is where aggregators Amazon Fire and Roku come in.

Some might ask why this matters in the grand scheme of things. After all, those who pay for Peacock can simply log in to watch on their phones, tablets, smart TVs or laptops. And they could even connect those devices to their televisions with an HDMI cable. So who cares if many people can’t easily watch streaming services Peacock on their TVs? Well it’s true that most modern conveniences would fail on a moral relativism scale. But to paraphrase Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin, “maybe the problems of Amazon Fire and Roku users don’t amount to a hill of beans. But this is our hill. And these are our beans.” After all, this is the land of drive-thrus, heated car seats, and microwavable rice. If you’ve got your laptop connected to your TV through an HDMI cable, who’s getting up to change the stream from Peacock’s Liverpool vs. Spurs match to ESPN+’s Juventus against Inter Milan match without a remote control? If people are going to pay for all the various streaming services, then they deserve the convenience of watching those services as easily as possible.

We’ve come a long way since the days when there were only a handful of soccer games on TV to watch, but it seems as if we’re still a long way off from being able to flick through all the soccer streaming options on our TVs as easily as we flick through channels.

UPDATE: Peacock is now available on Roku as of September 21, 2021


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